By Shane Nicholson
Is it an enviable position? No, but the Blackhawks have been here before and they know how to get the job done.
Nine times before under coach Joel Quenneville the Hawks have trailed a playoff series 2-1. In the five times they’ve taken Game 4 to even the series they’ve gone on to win it, including 2013’s triumph over the Boston Bruins for the team’s fifth Stanley Cup.
And tonight they’ll get the boost of 40-year-old defenseman Kimmo Timonen returning to the lineup, replacing Kyle Cumiskey, to help bolster a back line that is feeling the burden of some heavy playoff ice time.
“I’m really excited,” Timonen told reporters after Wednesday’s morning skate. “It’s been a long couple weeks here and I’ve been working out hard just to hope I get this chance to play one more, or more games, and it looks like that moment came today.”
The Hawks could certainly use the depth. Their top four defensemen tasked with guarded goalie Corey Crawford have racked up some big minutes so far in these playoffs.
Duncan Keith leads the way with more than 620 minutes through 20 games, but Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson have totaled over 500 minutes and Johnny Oduya is on their heels with 495. Jonathan Toews leads forwards with 423.
Oduya is expected to play despite suffering an “upper body injury” during the second period of Game 3, just one of a few Chicago defenders who’s spent time in the trainer’s room this series.
But Quenneville says there are no signs of fatigue in the ranks.
“The guys take care of themselves to a different level,” he said. “They prepare for the excitement and importance of the next game. They find ways when they’re ready to compete, whatever is in front of them.”
What’s in front of them is a Tampa Bay Lightning squad on a two-game winning streak being backed by goaltender Ben Bishop, whose mystery ailment has become one of the running story lines of the Finals.
Bishop left Game 2 for undisclosed reasons with under 10 minutes to play and during Game 3 was visibly favoring his left leg, having trouble covering his crease as the Hawks wasted chance after chance to gain the advantage in the series.
He was on the ice for the Lightning’s morning skate Wednesday but didn’t make the lineup for tonight’s game. Andrei Vasilevskiy will get the nod in goal after he closed out Game 2 for Tampa Bay in Bishop’s absence.
The Hawks will counter with another switch to their forward lines with Kris Versteeg expected to replace Bryan Bickell who was brought into the team for Game 3.
Versteeg has averaged over a half-point per game during his playoff career and said that he’s ready to “go out there and play my game.”
If he can provide any sign of life for the Blackhawks’ top lines it will be a welcome sight. Toews and Patrick Kane have continued to struggle against an aggressive Tampa Bay defense.
But there were positives to take from the top two groups in Game 3 as Brandon Saad and Brad Richards scored Monday night with Marian Hossa assisting on both.
And Versteeg is confident he can build on his teammates’ performances tonight to help get the series back on level terms.
“I thought the first two games there was glimpses of it,” he said, “but I really look forward to trying to get my entire game to where it should be.”
If the Blackhawks can get this series to 2-2 tonight they’ll feel right back where they should be, too.
Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Finals is tonight at 7 p.m. on NBC Sports Net.